By John Perney
A renowned scholar of American literature and a lion of the Albion College English Department for nearly three decades, Dr. John Edward Hart, professor emeritus, passed away Sunday, April 10, 2011 at the age of 94.
Hart made an imprint as an author and a prolific contributor to literary journals, but it was his 28 years of fostering discussion and debate and challenging students in Albion classrooms that is most remembered—and cherished.
“I just thoroughly enjoyed learning from John Hart,” said James Kingsley, ’63, Circuit Court judge in Calhoun County. “He was an exacting teacher, but he really challenged you to understand different viewpoints in writing and where the author would be coming from.”
The sentiments are shared by many alumni, whether or not they were a regular in Hart’s classroom.
“I took only one class from Dr. Hart and enjoyed every minute,” said Carolyn Aishton, ’64. “His wit, intellect, and deadpan delivery were captivating.”
Donna Gabehart Burk, ’64, in a tribute to Hart during Homecoming in 1993, said she “discovered him in the second semester of my freshman year at Albion and followed him through every course that he taught. He is a true American scholar who, with great wit and brilliance, has always encouraged his students to go real deep and look at the world and literature in an unbiased, fair, inquisitive, and unique way.”
Born on Feb. 16, 1917 in Barnard, Kansas, Hart arrived at Albion in 1954 after receiving his doctorate from Syracuse University; Hart also received his master’s from Syracuse in 1940. In between he achieved the rank of sergeant while serving in the Army from 1942 to 1945 and taught at both the University of Cincinnati and the Odenwaldschule in Heppenheim, Germany.
Professor emeritus and English colleague Hal Wyss, who taught at Albion for 35 years, was actually hired by Hart in 1970 because then-Department Chair Joe Irwin was on sabbatical. But Wyss didn’t see Hart much in those first few months.
“The first semester I was here John had some kind of a lung problem that was almost fatal,” Wyss said. “I took over a class for him, so I had four classes that semester. But already I got a sense of how much students liked him, and it was kind of hard to follow in his footsteps right then, because he was so well liked and respected.”
Hart was named Albion College’s Scholar of the Year in 1975, and was never far away following his retirement in 1982, remaining an Albion resident until his passing. He delivered the Last Chance Lecture, titled “Remembering for All of Us,” during the 1993 Homecoming, and his legacy continues in the English Department through the annual John Hart Award for excellence in literary study.
Also part of the ’93 Homecoming was the establishment by alumni of an endowed American literature library collection in his name. In addition, Hart donated many books—including first editions—to Stockwell Library’s holdings, and a collection of prints will be given to the College’s Art and Art History Department.
Outside of class, Hart took to writing, once saying that his goal was “to explore the magic and meaning of the written word, especially the artistic and aesthetic creations that man’s mind and imagination are capable of conceiving in two words: literary criticism.”
Hart’s books include History of the 334th Field Artillery Battalion (1946), Floyd Dell (1971), Albert Halper (1980), and Heroes and Progresses: Studies in American Literature (1985). His observations on “The Red Badge of Courage as Myth and Symbol” and “The Scarlet Letter – One Hundred Years Later” are included in several college textbooks and educational recordings.
He also donated collections of correspondence and other writings to Syracuse University, the University of Delaware, and the Newberry Library in Chicago.
Hart wrote numerous poems, too. One, titled “Ode to a Little Table,” was perhaps more an ode to his hobby.
“He was a master craftsman,” Aishton said. “Over several decades he handcrafted some 100 or more little tables from beautiful wood that he mail-ordered. He could master any style.”
What he mastered more than anything was language, and he wanted his students to become adept with it as well.
“He didn’t have a reputation for being hardnosed, but he did have a reputation for being demanding, particularly in writing,” Wyss said. “He wanted students to write correctly, to write clearly.”
That message got through to Kingsley one more time in 2001, as Doris Kearns Goodwin gave the Joseph S. Calvaruso Keynote Address during the Elkin R. Isaac Student Research Symposium.
“He and I were sitting next to each other,” Kingsley remembered. “She was just talking extemporaneously, and I said to John, ‘She is talking in such fully developed sentences.’ And he said, ‘James, she is speaking in fully developed paragraphs.’”
But Hart knew the importance of brevity as well. Said Burk in her 1993 tribute: “Dr. Hart did offer me this valuable advice years ago: ‘You write at length. You include much. You need to be more selective.’”
Now, she admits it’s difficult to find the appropriate words to describe Hart’s impact.
“He just so surpasses any words that you could write down,” she said recently. “I’ve known him since 1960 and I have all of my notes from his classes, all of my blue books. I did my honors thesis under him, and I have every letter I received from him, too. . . . What a treasure he was.”
Hart’s wife of 58 years, Mary Helen Negus Hart, died in 2000; he is survived by sister Marcellene McDonald and niece Donna Evers, both of Great Bend, Kansas.
Burial will take place in Lyons, New York. A celebration-of-life gathering in Dr. Hart’s honor will be held at a later date.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Albion College Library, the Albion College Art and Art History Department, the Albion Historical Society, or the Humane Society – Calhoun Area.